Silicon Valley: A Reality Check

By Scott Alexander

The nation has spoken: weird pointless $400 wi-fi enabled juicer company Juicero is the perfect symbol of Silicon Valley.

So says the Washington Post: Juicero Shows What’s Wrong With Silicon Valley Thinking. So says TechCrunch, which calls Juicero “the absurd avatar of Silicon Valley hubris”. So says Newsweek, which renames the area Silly-Con Valley in its honor. And of course there’s Deadspin, which calls it “the best story ever written about Silicon Valley… a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for.”

In case you missed it, Juicero was a startup that got $120 million in funding to manufacture high-end juicers which were supposed to be the bleeding-edge in juice-related technology. Then Bloomberg did some investigative reporting and found that you could actually make juice equally well by skipping the $400 juicer and just squeezing the juice packets with your bare hands.

This is, admittedly, pretty silly. But I want to take a step back and suggest a reality check.

While Deadspin was busy calling Silicon Valley “awful nightmare trash parasites”, my girlfriend in Silicon Valley was working for a company developing a structured-light optical engine to manipulate single cells and speed up high-precision biological research.

While FastCoDesign was busy calling Juicero “a symbol of the Silicon Valley class designing for its own, insular problems,” a bunch of my friends in Silicon Valley were working for Wave, a company that helps immigrants send remittances to their families in East Africa.

While Vox was busy writing about how Juicero “says a lot about the state of Silicon Valley right now”, Silicon Valley was leading a revolution in solar power that’s resulted in a 1500% increase in cell installations over the past few years.

While Slate was busy telling us that Silicon Valley companies “repackage familiar ideas and sell them back to us as exemplars of Groundbreaking Disruptive Innovation”, Silicon Valley was shooting a fifteen-story rocket a hundred miles into the air at 4,100 mph, then landing it gently on a 300 foot platform in the middle of the ocean.

While Gizmodo was busy writing that this “is not an isolated quirk” because Silicon Valley investors “don’t care that they do not solve problems [and] exist to temporarily excite the affluent into spending money”, Silicon Valley investors were investing $35 million into an artificial pancreas for diabetics.

While Freddie deBoer was busy arguing that Silicon Valley companies “siphon money from the desperate throngs back to the employers who will use them up and throw them aside like a discarded Juicero bag and, of course, to themselves and their shareholders. That’s it. That’s all they are. That’s all they do”, Silicon Valley companies were busy inventing cultured meat products that could end factory farming and save millions of animals from horrendous suffering while also helping the environment.

Or maybe we should try to be more quantitative about this. I looked at the latest batch of 52 startups from legendary Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator.

Thirteen of them had an altruistic or international development focus, including Neema, an app to help poor people without access to banks gain financial services; Kangpe, online health services for people in Africa without access to doctors; Credy, a peer-to-peer lending service in India; Clear Genetics, an automated genetic counseling tool for at-risk parents; and Dost Education, helping to teach literacy skills in India via a $1/month course.

Twelve of them seemed like really exciting cutting-edge technology, including CBAS, which describes itself as “human bionics plug-and-play”; Solugen, which has a way to manufacture hydrogen peroxide from plant sugars; AON3D, which makes 3D printers for industrial uses; Indee, a new genetic engineering system; Alem Health, applying AI to radiology, and of course the obligatory drone delivery startup.

Eighteen of them seemed like boring meat-and-potatoes companies aimed at businesses that need enterprise data solution software application package analytics targeting management something something something “the cloud”.

And the remaining nine were your ridiculous niche Uber-for-tacos startups that we all know and love, including Cowlar (“FitBit for cows – it’s way smarter than it sounds!”); Origin (“Keurig for smoothies”), MoveButter, which compares itself to three different companies I’ve never heard of in its first sentence but seems to be grocery-related in some way; Mere Coffee, a better-tasting coffee machine for small businesses; and LitHit, a smart target for shooting sports. I’m sure somebody in the comments is going to tell me why FitBits for cows is actually a vital service that will revolutionize agriculture, but I’m trying to err on the side of caution here.

I’m concerned that Y Combinator might be so successful that they’re unique in going for status and do-gooding rather than being a real cross-sample of startups (and they also seem to recruit a lot of international startups from outside Silicon Valley). So I also looked at the first twenty startups in the portfolio of Andreessen Horowitz, a famous Valley venture capitalist firm. One of them seemed explicitly prosocial – some kind of science education partnership company. Four of them seemed high-tech or otherwise awesome – including the obligatory aerial-surveying-with-drones company. Twelve seemed to be some sort of enterprise data solution software application package analytics targeting management something something something “the cloud”. And only two of them seemed even a little vapid – eg this high-end photo sharing/printing site. Which is hardly that vapid – nobody would bat an eye at that if it were done by Kodak or Staples.

So although meat-and-potato business/software companies do outnumber really high-tech or altruistic ventures, there’s not a lot of evidence for silly Juicero-style startups being much of the Silicon Valley business community at all. So how come everyone thinks that they are?

Here’s my theory. If you’re an average well-off person, leading your average well-off life, consuming average well-off media and seeing ads targeted at the average well-off demographic, and going over to your average well-off friends’ houses and seeing their average well-off products, which are you more likely to hear about? A structured-light optical engine for cytological research? Or a juicer?

Or to put it another way: there’s a chapter in Unsong (spoiler!) where an archangel brings peace to the Middle East by splitting the Holy Land into two parallel dimensions. Any Jew who enters will find themselves in a united Israel; any Muslim who enters will find themselves in an independent Palestine.

And sometimes I wonder if the same archangel has gotten to Silicon Valley.

If a deeply good person crusading for a better world enters Silicon Valley, she’ll find herself surrounded by deeply good people crusading for a better world. She’ll see mobile apps that track tropical diseases, clean energy startups that fight global warming by directly sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, companies bringing microbanking to poor Nepalese villagers, and boutique pharmaceutical labs searching for cures for orphan diseases.

If a futurist enters Silicon Valley, she’ll find herself surrounded by futurists. She’ll see neural nets and deep learning, reusable rockets and flying cars, high-throughput genome sequencing and CRISPR, metamaterials and nanotechnology.

If a social-media-obsessed narcissist whose view of the world begins and ends with his own Instagram page enters Silicon Valley, he’ll find himself surrounded by social-media-obsessed narcissists whose view of the world begins and ends with their Instagram pages. He’ll see a bunch of streaming video services and Uber-for-hair-products apps and elite pay-to-play dating scams and people trying to disrupt the gymwear market.

And if one of those people who talks about “the cloud” all the time enters Silicon Valley, he’ll find himself surrounded by people who talk about “the cloud” all the time. I have no idea who these people are or what they’re doing, but they all seem really happy with each other and I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves.

They’ll all have their blind-men-and-elephant view of what kinds of things Silicon Valley “does”. And they’ll all be sort of right.

(thinkpiece writers: “Can you believe that Silicon Valley only makes products for shallow elites obsessed with the latest fads? It’s the strangest thing!“)

So I would recommend people stop talking about how Silicon Valley only makes ridiculous overpriced juicers. It’s not that it doesn’t make those. It does, just like everywhere else. A Facebook friend pointed out that QVC has been selling our parents ridiculous overpriced kitchen items since before we were born. Billy Mays pitched the EZ Crunch Bowl, which promised to “revolutionize your cereal-eating experience”. The unique thing about Silicon Valley isn’t that it’s got overpriced status goods designed to separate rich people from their money. The unique thing about Silicon Valley is that it’s got anything else.

I don’t want to downplay the problem. Anything remotely good in the world gets invaded by rent-seeking parasites and empty suits. Silicon Valley is no exception, and raising awareness of the infestation is certainly a public service. But for some reason, it’s hard for me to believe that – let’s say Deadspin – really believes in the spirit of Silicon Valley, really thinks that there was once somewhere that weird nerdy people could get together and produce amazing things for the good of everybody, and that to some degree this is still going on, and is a precious thing that needs to be protected. At its worst, some of their criticism sounds more like a worry that there might still be some weird nerds who think they can climb out of the crab-bucket, and they need to be beaten into submission by empty suits before they can get away. Or maybe that’s just paranoia. Fine, I admit I’m paranoid. But I still feel like people should lay off the criticism a little.

When Capitol Hill screws up, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis get killed.

When Wall Street screws up, the country is plunged into recession and poor families lose their homes.

When Silicon Valley screws up, people who want a pointless Wi-Fi enabled juicer get a pointless Wi-Fi enabled juicer. Which by all accounts makes pretty good juice.